The Father of Modern Science
By Matt McKeown
Titles like "the father of modern science" get thrown around sometimes as hyperbolic praise, but Bacon earned the compliment more than most people.
Bacon was among the most important figures in the history of the scientific method. Drawing on sources from the Islamic Golden Age, he discovered flaws in the then-prevalent natural philosophy of Aristotle by experiment, and proposed a radically new, empirical approach to such researches and to the standard educational curriculum of his day.
But enough about Roger Bacon—he lived more than three hundred years earlier than Francis Bacon, whom we’re dealing with, and was a scholar at Oxford rather than Cambridge. Still, the resemblances between the two men and their legacies are a little uncanny; nearly everything in the paragraph above does also apply to the luminary of the English Renaissance.
Born in 1561, Francis Bacon spent most of his life as a politician, author, and jurist, being appointed Lord Chancellor under James I (then the highest rank in England beneath the king); he was especially noted for his impartiality, opposition to feudal privilege, promotion of the reform and simplification of the law, and opposition to religious persecution. Bacon was also an early proponent of the unification of England and Scotland, which was finally effected in the early eighteenth century. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1621, his lifelong enemy Edward Coke (who was equally eminent and brilliant in the theory and practice of law) successfully ruined him with charges of corruption while in office. Bacon spent his last few years devoted solely to his researches, and died of pneumonia in 1626.
He left a large number of works behind, some published only after his death. He was a devout Anglican, and wrote a number of theological volumes, including a series of meditations and prayers and an incomplete dialogue about whether religious wars can ever be justified. As a jurist, he also composed several works on law, drawing heavily upon classical sources like Cicero.
However, what Francis Bacon is remembered most for are his contributions to the philosophy and development of science. He vigorously supported two changes of emphasis from the conventions of Medieval science: that empirical verification, i.e. experiment, should take precedence over theory; and that knowledge should be pursued not merely for its own sake, but in order to obtain benefits for humanity through discoveries and inventions. Both ideas set him somewhat at variance with Aristotle, who had troubled little with experimental research (and often gotten things wrong in consequence) and considered the disinterested pursuit of knowledge humanity’s highest value; it is no coincidence that Bacon named his most famous work the Novum Organum, or “new instrument,” the old Organum being the traditional title for Aristotle’s collected works on logic. Even the frontispiece for the Novum Organum (used as the page image for this post) symbolically represents the contrast, showing ships sailing out past the Pillars of Hercules, which formed the boundary of the classical world, and with a Latin quotation from Daniel at the bottom: “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.”
The first principle of the Novum Organum is the rejection of deductive reasoning. Bacon argues, “The syllogism is made up of propositions, propositions of words, and words are markers of notions. Thus if the notions themselves (and this is the heart of the matter) are confused … nothing built on them is sound. The only hope therefore lies in true Induction.” In other words, if we begin with flawed assumptions, we can construct as many valid syllogisms as we like and still get everything wrong.
And Bacon thought that we were specially inclined to begin with flawed assumptions. He identified four main sources of this problem, which he classified as different kinds of “idols.” “Idols of the tribe” and “idols of the cave” were those assumptions that either human nature in general or our own particular cast of mind predispose us to; an example of the first is the natural but wrong assumption that orbiting planets move in perfect circles. Then there are “idols of the market,” based in faulty interpretations of words and ideas, and lastly, “idols of the theater,” by which he primarily meant an uncritical and dogmatic acceptance of prevailing or prestigious ideas.
In place of both these “idols” and the whole process of deductive syllogism, he advanced the Baconian method, an early form of what we know as the scientific method today. Careful empirical observation is always the beginning, followed by careful abstraction of more general principles from the specific observations that have been made; this process of observation and abstraction is repeated as many times as possible, and with particular attention to unexpected or irregular data, slowly building up an increasingly reliable body of knowledge.
Though of course the “idols” are a persistent problem of the human mind, and scientists are not immune to them, it must be said that this does describe the method of dealing with those flaws that has allowed us to accomplish the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, which (along with many drawbacks that he did not foresee) were exactly the kind of thing Bacon wanted. Few people on our Author Bank can claim such a complete vindication of their goals in writing. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also take an interest in this profile of Galileo, or this student essay on the black hole information paradox. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our CEO and founder, Jeremy Tate.